GM ignition switch fund OKs compensation for 104 deaths

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The General Motors ignition switch compensation fund said Monday it has now approved compensation for 104 deaths — four more than a week earlier.

The fund also approved seven new injury claims, bringing the total number of approved claims for deaths and injuries to nearly 300. Of the 191 injury claims approved, 12 are for serious injuries and 179 are for less severe injuries.

GM initially said last year that 13 deaths were related to Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other cars with ignition switches that can inadvertently shut off the engine and disable power steering and air bags. GM delayed recalling the cars for nearly a decade even after some within the company became aware there was a problem.

The automaker has said the 13 deaths it linked last year “was based on information available to the company at the time, and it was based on a thorough review by engineers of the facts and circumstances of each crash, including any available technical information recorded by the vehicle’s on-board computer.”

GM hasn’t continued to track publicly how many deaths it believes are related under that definition.

Fund officials are using a much broader definition to determine if deaths are related to the defect — including pedestrians who may have been killed as a result of a defective GM car.

In total, 4,342 claims were submitted by the Jan. 31 deadline, including 474 death claims. A total of 495 claims are still under review, including 26 death claims. A total of 2,094 claims have been ruled ineligible, including 244 deaths. Of the claims, 80 have been submitted without documentation.

Camille Biros, deputy fund administrator, said last week she hopes the fund will complete its review of still-outstanding claims by the end of July.

GM spokesman Jim Cain has called the compensation program run by lawyer Ken Feinberg “a settlement program.”

“It is designed to settle claims, rather than make rigorous engineering or legal judgments about the definitive causes of accidents,” Cain said. “If Feinberg elects to make a settlement offer to a claimant in a case involving a fatality, the fatality associated with that case is added to Feinberg’s count of fatalities (whether or not they accept a settlement offer). GM plays no role in Feinberg’s determinations or decisions to make settlement offers, and Feinberg is not required to explain his decisions to GM.”

Texas lawyer Robert Hilliard, one of the lead lawyers suing GM over ignition defects, said last week GM intentionally “spun reporters” when it suggested the number of deaths was just 13.

“GM played the media, they played the spin game, and they cemented ‘13’ in the public’s mind even when they knew, before bankruptcy, it was higher,” Hilliard said. “This company knew for years that its ignition switch defect had killed and injured hundreds. It was continuing its dishonesty and supplementing that with disingenuousness when it told the world there were only 13 deaths. I am confident the depositions we are beginning will confirm that when these GM employees have to answer questions under oath subject to perjury.”

The Justice Department, 50 state attorneys general, the Securities and Exchange Commission and Transport Canada are investigating GM’s delayed recall, which led to the firings of 15 GM employees last year.

Some Wall Street analysts have speculated GM may have to pay a fine to resolve the investigations that could top $2 billion. GM in May 2014 paid a $35 million fine to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to resolve its investigation and agreed to up to three years of intense monitoring.